What makes an artist great? It takes talent, of course, and a genius for innovation. Also, having some sort of vision helps. But a truly great artist is distinguished by a unique ability to take his or her moment in time and distill its essence so that resulting work becomes timeless. Limited to dress and hairstyle, for example, the Mona Lisa is just a woman from the Renaissance. But her expression—subtle, ambiguous—has given her a mystique that will survive the ages. And so it goes, not only for her creator, Leonardo Da Vinci, but also for the other artists (many of them included in New York museums such as The Met, MoMA and the Guggenheim) on our list of the most famous artists of all time.
Most famous artists of all time
The original Renaissance Man, Leonardo is identified with genius, not only for masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa (the title for which has entered the language as a superlative), The Last Supper and The Lady with an Ermine, but also for his drawings of technologies (aircraft, tanks, automobile) that were five hundred years in the future.
Leonardo da Vinci
Michelangelo was a triple threat: A painter (the Sistine Ceiling), a sculptor (the David and Pietà) and architect (St. Peter's Basilica in Rome). Make that a quadruple threat since he also wrote poetry. Though he bounced between Florence, Bologna and Venice, his greatest commissions were for the Medici Popes (including Julian II and Leo X, among others) in Rome. Aside from the aforementioned Sistine Ceiling, St. Peter's Basilica and Pietà, there was his tomb for Pope Julian II (which includes his iconic carving of Moses) and the design for the Laurentian Library at at San Lorenzo's Church. Twenty years after painting the Sistine Ceiling, he returned to the Chapel to create one of the greatest frescoes of the Renaissance: The Last Judgment.
Michelangelo's David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell'Accademia (Florence)
Photorgaph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Jorg Bittney Unna
One the greatest artists in history, this Dutch Master is responsible for masterworks such as The Night Watch and Doctor Nicolaes Tulp's Demonstration of the Anatomy of the Arm. But he is particularly know for portraits in which he demonstrated an uncanny ability to evoke the innermost thoughts of his subjects (including himself through the play of facial expression and the fall of light across the sitter’s features.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661
Remarkably, Vermeer was largely forgotten for two centuries before his rediscovery in the 19th century. Since then, he’s been recognized as one of art history’s most important figures, an artist capable of rendering works of uncanny beauty. Many have argued the Vermeer used a camera obscura—an early form of projector—and certainly the soft blur he employs appears to foreshadow photorealism. But the most important aspect of his work is how it represents light as a tangible substance.
Johannes Vermeer, Het meisje met de parel (Girl with a Pearl Earring), 1665
Watteau (1684–1721) was arguably the greatest French painter of the 18th-century, a transitional figure between Baroque art and the Roccoco style that followed. He emphasized color and movement, structuring his compositions so that they almost resembled theater scenes, but it was the atmospheric quality of his work that would become highly influential for artists like J.M.W Turner and the Impressionists.
Jean-Antoine Watteau, The Shop Sign of Gersaint, (1720–21)
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Antoine Watteau
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was one of towering figures of 19th-century art. A leading figure of Romanticism—which privileged emotions over rationalism—Delacroix’s expressive paint handling and use of color laid the foundation for successive avant-garde movements of the 1800s and beyond.
Eugene Delacroix, Self-Portrait with Green Vest, ca. 1837
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/cgfa.sunsite.dk via web.archive.org
Perhaps the best know artist among the Impressionists, Monet captured the changeable effects of light on the landscape through prismatic shards of color delivered as rapidly painted strokes. Moreover, his multiple studies of haystacks and other subjects anticipated the use of serial imagery in Pop Art and Minimalism. But the same token, his magisterial, late-career lily pond paintings foreshadowed Abstract Expressionism and Color-Field Abstaction.
Claude Monet, 1901
Most people know Georges Seurat (1859–1891) as the inventor of pointillism (which he actually developed with the artist Paul Signac), a radical painting technique in which small daubs of color where applied to the canvas, leaving it to the viewer’s eye to resolve those dots and dashes into images. Just as importantly, Seurat broke with the capture-the-moment approach of other Impressionists, going instead for ordered compositional style that recalled the stillness of classical art.
Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–1886
Photograph: Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago/Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection
Van Gogh is legendary for being mentally unstable (he did, after all, cut of part of his ear after an argument with fellow painter Paul Gauguin), but his paintings are among the most famous and beloved of all time. (His painting, The Starry Night, inspired a treacly Top 40 hit by Don McClean.) Van Gogh’s technique of painting with flurries of thick brushstrokes made up of bright colors squeezed straight from the tube would inspire subsequent generations of artists.
Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889
I scream, you scream we all scream for Munch’s The Scream, the Mona Lisa of anxiety. In 2012, a pastel version of Edvard Munch’s iconic evocation of modern angst fetched a then-astronomical price of $120 million at auction (a benchmark which has since been bested several times). Munch’s career was more than just a single painting. He’s generally acknowledged as the precursor to Expressionism, influencing artists such 20th-century artists as Egon Schiele, Erich Heckel and Max Beckmann.
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893
Photograph: U.S. Public Domain
Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was a hothouse of psychologically and sexually charged tension and repression, and no figure channeled the milieu better than Egon Schiele (1890–1918), whose fevered sensibility found expression in drawings and paintings of subjects that were as explicit as they were jittery.
Egon Schiele, Self Portrait with Physalis, 1912
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Google Arts & Culture
The fin de siècle Viennese Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt is know for using gold leaf, something he picked up on while visiting the famous Byzantine frescoes in Ravenna Italy. He most famously put the idea to use in his masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I—also know as Austria’s Mona Lisa—a painting looted by the Nazis during World War II. The story of its eventual return to its rightful owner served as the basis of the film, Woman In Gold, starring Helen Mirren. Another Klimt painting, The Kiss, is equally iconic.
Gustav Klimt, 1914
Born in Málaga, Spain, Pablo Picasso is undoubtedly one of the most famous artists ever. His name is virtually synonymous with modern art, and it doesn’t hurt that he fits the commonly held image of the outlaw genius whose ambitions are matched by an appetite for living large. He changed the course of art history with revolutionary innovations that include collage and, of course, Cubism, which broke the stranglehold of representational subject matter on art, and set the tempo for other 20th-century artists. He utterly transformed multiple mediums, making so many works that it’s hard to grasp his achievement.
Pablo Picasso, Woman with Fan, 1909
No artist is as closely tied to the sensual pleasures of color as Henri Matisse. His work was all about sinuous curves rooted in the traditions of figurative art, and was always focused on the beguiling pleasures of pigment and hue. “I am not a revolutionary by principle,” he once said. “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter…a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair.”
Henri Matisse, Paris, May 13th, 1913
Photograph: Alvin Langdon Coburn
The name René Magritte is widely recognized by art lovers and agnostics alike, and for good reason: He utterly transformed our expectations of what is real and what is not. When someone describes something as “surreal,” the chances are good that an image by Magritte pops into his or her head.
Magritte Rene, The Roof of the World, 1926-1927
Dalí was effectively Warhol before there was a Warhol. Like Andy, Dalí courted celebrity almost as an adjunct to his work. With their melting watches and eerie blasted landscapes, Dalí’s paintings were the epitome of Surrealism, and he cultivated an equally outlandish appearance, wearing a long waxed mustache that resembled cat whiskers. Ever the consummate showman, Dalí once declared, “I am not strange. I am just not normal.”
Salvador Dalí with Babou, the ocelot and cane, 1965
Georgia O’Keeffe’s reputation rests in part on the idea that many of her paintings evoke a certain part of the female anatomy. O'Keeffe herself angrily rejected the notion that her compositions—especially her floral studies—were symbolic representations of vaginas, but the idea has stuck. Nevertheless, there so much more to the artist’s work, which could be described as a blend of symbolism, precisionism and abstraction.
Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918
Photograph: Alfred Stieglitz
Hopper’s enigmatic paintings look into the hollow core of the American experience—the alienation and loneliness that represents the flip side of to our religious devotion to individualism and the pursuit of an often-elusive happiness. In compositions such as Nighthawks, Automat and Office in a Small City, he captures stillness weighed down by despair, his subjects trapped in the limbo between aspiration and reality. His landscapes are similarly suffused with a sense that America’s open spaces are as purgatorial as they are limitless.
Edward Hopper, Self Portrait, 1906
The Mexican artist and feminist icon was a performance artist of paint, using the medium to lay bare her vulnerabilities while also constructing a persona of herself as an embodiment of Mexico’s cultural heritage. Her most famous works are the many surrealistic self-portraits in which she maintains a regal bearing even as she casts herself as a martyr to personal and physical suffering—anguishes rooted in a life of misfortunes that included contracting polio as a child, suffering a catastrophic injury as a teenager, and enduring a tumultuous marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera.
Frida Kahlo, 1932
Photograph: Guillermo Kahlo
Hampered by alcoholism, self-doubt and clumsiness as a conventional painter, Pollock transcended his limitations in a brief but incandescent period between 1947 and 1950 when he produced the drip abstractions that cemented his renown. Eschewing the easel to lay his canvases fait on the floor, he used house paint straight from the can, flinging and dribbling thin skeins of pigment that left behind a concrete record of his movements—a technique that would become known as action painting.
Jackson Pollock, Reflection of the Big Dipper, 1947
Photograph: History Archive/REX/Shutterstock
Technically, Warhol didn’t invent Pop Art, but he became the Pope of Pop by taking the style out of the art world and bringing it into the world of fashion and celebrity. Starting out as a commercial artist, he brought the ethos of advertising into fine art, even going so far as to say, “Making money is art.” Such sentiments blew away the existential pretensions of Abstract Expressionism. Although he’s famous for subjects such as Campbell’s Soup, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, his greatest creation was himself.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Jack Mitchell
Kusama (born 1929) is one of the most famous artists working today. Her huge popularity stems from her mirrored “Infinity Rooms” that have proved irresistible for Instagram users, but her career stretches back over six decades. Starting as a child, the Japanese artist began to suffer from hallucinations that manifested as flashes of light or auras, as well as fields of dots and flowers that talked to her. These experiences have provided the inspiration for her work, including the aforementioned rooms along with paintings, sculptures and installations that employ vivid, phantasmagorical patterns of polka dots and other motifs. Between 1957 and 1972, she lived in NYC, where she gained notoriety for chairs upholstered with stuffed-fabric phalluses, as well as outdoor happenings that involved public nudity. Her psychological afflictions, though, have continued to plague her, and in 1977, she committed herself to mental hospital in Japan where she’s lived ever since.